Whittier group helps stores survive 35W construction

Electric Fetus reports a drop in sales following closure of the Franklin Avenue bridge.

The Interstate 35W construction zone stretches to the doorstep of Electric Fetus. Staff continually tell callers they are indeed open for business, despite appearances.

35W biz 4“It’s an amazing view, if you walk over there. It’s right at their sidewalk,” said Andrew Nordick, a board member of the Whittier Alliance neighborhood group.

Nordick and other residents have formed a task force to support businesses that will be impacted by four years of construction.

When signs closing the Franklin Avenue bridge appeared to block business access, the group advocated with state Rep. Karen Clark for wayfinding signs. The Minnesota Dept. of Transportation installed the signs in recent weeks.

The group also partnered with the marketing firm Zeus Jones, and they’re discussing a campaign to help minimize the negative impacts of construction.

“We still need more focus on bringing attention to the businesses that are affected but are still open,” Nordick said.

Manager Said Buuh of Cala Fry & Grill said sales are down 70 percent. Regular customers have told him they aren’t coming because of construction. Slow days are particularly painful in the restaurant business, he said.

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“If we don’t sell that day, we have to throw it away,” he said. “Most of our customers use this road.”

Next door at Giant Laundromax, owner Marilyn Craig said she’s also noticed a slowdown, as many of her customers walking across the bridge face a lengthy detour.

With 15,000 fewer cars driving down Franklin, business at Electric Fetus is down 15-20 percent, or about 60-70 customers per day, according to co-owner Aaron Meyerring. He said both of the store’s parking entrances from 4th and Franklin are open, even though they appear to be closed at a distance. The store is also bracing for reconstruction of 4th Avenue, which comes with an assessment of more than $50,000.

“We’ll just kind of tread water and get through until this summer,” he said.

The 35W project between downtown and 43rd Street includes a new Lake Street transit station and reconstructed and rehabbed bridges over the freeway. New exit ramps will send vehicles toward the Lake Street business district from 35W southbound to Lake Street and 35W northbound to 28th Street. Construction is scheduled to finish in the fall of 2021.

Nordick said the project caught some in the neighborhood by surprise.

“Their heads were sort of spinning once they learned the extensive nature of the project, and the length of it as well,” he said.

The 38th Street bridge closes in February. The Franklin Avenue bridge is scheduled to reopen this summer, and then the 26th Street bridge will close. When the 26th Street bridge reopens, anticipated in the fall, then the 28th Street bridge will close. Lake Street will remain open to traffic throughout construction with some lane closures. The Midtown Greenway will remain open throughout the project.

“To find the antidote for all of this is difficult. It’s different for every business as the road closures change,” Nordick said.

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The most ambitious and disruptive stretch of construction begins this summer, according to MnDOT spokesman Dave Aeikens. That’s when northbound access to downtown via Highway 65 closes for four months, and the ramp from 35W northbound to 94W closes for the next three-and-a-half years. He suggested that more people consider transit or carpooling into downtown or working part-time from home.

A recent survey by the Whittier firm Zeus Jones sought to understand the audience coming to the neighborhood and how traffic changes might impact them. Strategist Katie Iwanin said that while they’re still analyzing results, the data show an interesting tension between respondents who want to keep the neighborhood eclectic and dominated by small businesses and others who are drawn to modernization and new development. The task force will use the information to develop strategies to keep businesses thriving.

Meyerring said he hopes other shops can learn from the Electric Fetus’ experience.

“After the Franklin Avenue bridge is done, it’s just the beginning for Whittier,” he said. “…The main thing is just getting the word out that businesses are open.”